The excitement around Wyoming has been growing since Jeff Linder took over in 2020 and began steering the program in the right direction. The head coach is well aware of the buzz and expects it to get louder next season.
“I think people are really excited about this coming season,” Linder said. “You just know that when you walk around Larimie. When you go around the state, people know who you are. It’s like being the Lakers in LA.”
Linder’s journey started in March 2020, which was the same time when COVID-19 affected a lot of things in the United States. The Cowboys were coming off a 9-24 season, and the unpredictability of the pandemic added an extra layer of difficulty.
He posted a winning record of 14-11 his first season, but that was still not enough to convince everyone that Wyoming shouldn’t be underestimated. In the 2021-22 Mountain West predictions, Wyoming was tied with New Mexico for eighth. However, Linder and the Cowboys more than exceeded expectations. In February, they saw themselves at the No. 22 spot in the AP rankings, which was the first time the program was ranked since Jan. 12, 2015.
Wyoming finished third in the conference with a 13-5 mark in the Mountain West and 25-9 overall record. While they lost to Boise State in the conference tournament, the Cowboys still earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Linder said the key to success is the individuals who make up the roster. While it might sound cliché to talk about “the right guys,” Linder said he and his staff really do pay attention to what players do off the court.
“Coaches talk about character but sometimes they look the other way when it comes to talent,” he said. “For us, there are certain things that we look for in recruiting, guys who really want to take their academics seriously. We don’t want to babysit guys to go to class. We want guys to whom getting a degree actually means something.”
Hunter Maldonado is the perfect example of “the right guy.” The 6-foot-7-inch guard wrapped up the 2021-22 campaign as one of the most decorated players in program history. Maldonado was named the Mountain West Player of the Week three times in one season, and earned the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association in February.
Maldonado was one of the team’s biggest keys to success. He averaged 18.5 points per game and led the roster in assists with a total of 207 – which is the most in a single season at the school. He also tallied more than one steal per game. Unsurprisingly, Maldonado was named First Team All-Mountain West by both the coaches and the media.
When he is not succeeding on the court, he is doing so in the classroom. Maldonado received his bachelor’s with a double major in economics and finance. He will return to Wyoming next season to earn his master’s degree.
“He’s like a 4.0 student,” Linder said. “He’s really sharp. He’s got a bright future ahead of him just in terms of how good he is with numbers and money.”
Graham Ike, a 6-foot-9-inch junior forward, is another solid returner. He led the team in scoring last season with 19.5 points per game while shooting at 51% from the field. He finished the year ranked second in the conference and No. 30 in the nation in points per game.
Linder said his smile and personality are very infectious. He added that Ike’s talent is undeniable and this is only the beginning for him.
“His first year he was coming off an ALC, so he didn’t get cleared until January,” Linder said. “He is a guy whose body is still adjusting. He is just a puppy, he is still 19 years old.”
The new players will also make Wyoming even more dangerous. The Cowboys added three solid transfers in USC’s Ethan Anderson and Max Agbonkpolo and UCLA’s Jake Kyman.
The coach said Anderson and Agbonkpolo should add more versatility to the defense. On offense, all three of them are part of the plan to help take some of the load off of Maldonado and Ike thanks to their ability to make plays off the bounce.
Linder said this team will look more like his teams have played in the past in terms of a ball screen standpoint. There will also be a lot more balance.
“Last year we were so dependent on Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike in terms of playing through those two guys,” Linder said. “We are still going to play through their strengths, but we are going to be able to play at a little bit faster pace, we are going to play a little bit more open.”
Linder said the summertime is an important part for his team’s development. The coaching staff likes doing a lot of five-on-five to really figure out what works and what doesn’t. Linder admits that he can be demanding, but he also lets his players know that his main goal is to help them succeed.
He is feeling confident with next season’s personnel, now it’s just a matter of putting in the work during the offseason.
“There is nothing given,” Linder said. “We know there will be a lot of hype behind us. At the same time, we are also the same team that was picked to finish eight in the league last year, so we just got to focus on getting better each day and the product we put on the floor will hopefully represent the state of Wyoming.”